Magazine Article


Capturing Extraordinary People
When Lighting Your Subjects, Less Is More

Jeff Scroggins

Jeff Scroggins

Jeff Scroggins

Jeff Scroggins

Jeff Scroggins

I've been a freelance architectural and industrial-based photographer for more than nine years. With my architectural work, there are times when I will use a lot of lights to get the right look for the final image. Even in those situations, I try not to overlight or light in a way that takes away from the story or subject matter. This is an approach I credit to Texas-based photographer Gordon Trice.

I utilize this same approach when photographing people. For about four years, I have been working on a series of images featuring people with interesting stories. All of the subjects have been photographed on medium or large-format black-and-white film.

During the past few years, I have had the opportunity to photograph many individuals for this project, including: Klaus Obermeyer, considered the father of modern ski wear; Barry Sonnenfeld, director of such films as Raising Arizona and Men in Black; and Rose Nanyonga, a Ugandan nurse educated in the U.S. who has since returned to her home to work as the director of nursing for a humanitarian hospital.

Everyone I've photographed for this project is included because his or her story inspires me. These are the kind of ordinary people who end up doing extraordinary things with their lives, which sometimes go unnoticed.

Let There Be Light

When it comes to photographing any subject matter, I believe you have to be able to visualize the final image prior to setting up lighting. You'll be spinning your wheels if you don't.

My lighting kit includes seven Calumet 750 Travelites with an assortment of reflectors and grids. I have been using Travelites for more than 10 years and have never been disappointed. I approach all of the equipment I use as tools. No single tool is right for every project. For example, a carpenter is not going to use a 28-ounce framing hammer for fine trim work. Photography is no different; you select the tool that's right for producing the required end product.

For most of my portraits, I use one or two Travelite 750 heads, incorporating a softbox on the main light, and socks and grids on the background or fill lights. There are exceptions, of course.

Pushing the Envelope

One of the most challenging portraits I've done was of lighting designer Bill Brennan (top photo, page 12). The shoot took place at MTV's launch of their new high-def station, MHD, in Breckenridge, Colorado. From the start, I had wanted to capture Bill in his environment, ideally on stage with his lighting in the background-the reverse of what the public typically sees of him. I knew I wanted the lighting to be dramatic. In the final image, I wanted it to be obvious that the story is about Bill, with his environment as the background.

The shoot began with two strikes. First, I was told that I could have Bill for the 10 minutes following the Goo Goo Dolls' performance, which would also be when the road crews were tearing down all lighting, staging, and equipment. Second, the shoot would take place on the outdoor stage around 11:00 p.m. The temperature that January evening was -10 degrees. I photographed Bill using my Fujifilm GX680 III and a 100mm lens with the camera wrapped in a down coat to keep it functioning under the conditions.

Since there was not enough time to set up lighting, I chose to use what stage lighting was available. I had the lighting crew lower one of the stage lighting trusses and used a par can as my primary light source. I then had them bring up the spots that can be seen in the background; this is the source of the rim light on Bill's left shoulder. As I was shooting, 20 people were tearing everything down around us, including lights that were hanging over our heads. This shoot was a reminder that it's never a question of if there will be a hitch in the plans, but when.

This series of images is currently being assembled for exhibition in galleries. The smallest prints in the series are 30x40 inches.

Periodically people ask me what topic or subject matter they should be photographing. I believe you have to find a subject that inspires you, whether it's people, landscapes, or toothbrushes. You just have to keep shooting.

Jeff Scroggins ( is a freelance architectural and industrial photographer based in Colorado. His clients include Allsteel, Anadarko Petroleum, Newmont Mining, Pella Windows and Doors, and Vail Resorts.